This month we’re celebrating Black History Month on the blog, and we’ll be featuring writings and teachings from African-American Christians past and present.
In this lecture from History and Theology of the African American Church, Dr. Carl Ellis, Jr. describes theological development among African-American slaves.
- Withholding of Christianity from African-American slaves (0:05)
- Elements of African-American theological development (1:19)
- How African-American suffering in the South contributed to a theology of suffering (3:35)
*Note that because this is one lecture in a series, Dr. Ellis at times refers to previous or forthcoming lectures.
Attracted to Biblical Truth
As you saw from the last module, Christianity was withheld from the slaves because of some of the dangerous teachings that the Bible had. But in spite of all of that, slaves were able to pick up bits and pieces of biblical truth, and they were turned on by it. One of the reasons for it was because there was a kind of memory of some of the rudimentary things of the biblical worldview that trickled down into Africa, because, remember, we said how Christianity found fertile ground in Africa and the church grew by leaps and bounds.
But another reason is simply because of the truth. I mean, human beings are the image of God; we live in God’s world. And according to Rom 1, everybody has some knowledge of God. So, the slaves began to be turned on by the biblical of truth they picked up, and it reinforced these things they knew intuitively about who they were and what they were. Well, this leads to a theological development.
Patterns of Theological Development
Here’s where you begin to see the development of what I would call African-American theology.
Now, let’s look at the general patterns of how this developed.
Fragments of biblical truth
First, to have a theology, you have to have a life situation. And you also have to have biblical truth. Now, it’s interesting that slaves were denied access to the Bible because they were not allowed to read. And yet, in spite of that, many slaves began to pick up biblical truth. They would hear a little piece there and hear something here. It was like manna in the desert. They hear this, and they hear that, and they began to put those things together.
In the oral tradition of the traditional African-American church, you will notice, in preaching, a preacher will start off with not so much a passage in the traditional preaching; they just start off with what I call a “verse fragment”: “And he came down out of the mountain,” or something to that effect. And then they’d put the rest of it together, and then they would tell the story.
Well, what happened was that all this truth got captured into an oral tradition. So, if you go to a traditional African-American church in Atlanta or LA or Chicago or Miami or wherever you might be, you will hear some of the same phrases and expressions, because it’s part of the oral tradition, and the oral tradition carried biblical truth. Now, the oral tradition wasn’t canonical like the Bible is, but it did carry a lot of truth that the Bible has. If you take a group of people who are not allowed to read, that becomes the Word of God that they have—not that it replaces the Bible, but it carries biblical truth.
Praxis and a Biblical Paradigm
So, you have a life situation, and you have biblical truth; and these two things interact with one another, and they produced two things. First, they produce praxis (that’s “praxis,” praxis). What is that? It is simply putting biblical truth into reality according to our life theme. Then the other offspring of this interaction becomes a biblical paradigm, and that is a basic biblical pattern that connects with our life situation.
A theology of suffering
Now, I’m going to explain all of that in just a little bit, but suffice it to say that in the South, the life theme was that of suffering; and what the slaves then developed in the South was a theology of suffering. You hear this in the oral traditional: “I’ve been ’buked, and I’ve been scorned . . . and I’ve been talked about, sure as you’re born.” Now, the slaves didn’t come up with the triumphal theology—that would be expressing things like “Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before”—but there was a theme of suffering there.
A biblical paradigm
Now we go to the biblical paradigm: the slaves were able to identify with the exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt. So, you had this theology of suffering that was couched in the exodus paradigm and that—so, you have the praxis and you have the biblical paradigm, and together those produced a theology.
This theology kept the slaves going for all those years and kept them from falling into despair. So, that was one of the first developments. So, here we are, a group of suffering people—people who have been dehumanized—but in spite of that, [there] arises in this people a theology that was able to carry the freight of the suffering life.
To learn more about theological development among African-Americans, explore the Mobile Ed course History and Theology of the African-American Church.